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In new novel '2054', technology is advancing, but is humanity able to catch up?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The new novel, "2054" takes place - you guessed it - 30 years from now, by which point the authors imagined the U.S. will have survived nuclear war with China. Meanwhile, here at home, a civil war looms, and civilization is hurtling towards something called the singularity. The authors of "2054" are Elliot Ackerman, a Marine Corps veteran who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan - hey there, Elliot...

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Hey, nice to be with you.

KELLY: ...And also Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO. Admiral, welcome back.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good to be on the show with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this latest novel - this latest collaboration between the two of you - opens with the assassination of the president of the United States and a cover-up. There are White House staffers working to digitally alter pictures of the president collapsing while delivering a speech. Again, this is fiction. This is set 30 years in the future. But Elliot, I wondered, were y'all intentionally raising questions that would feel timely today - over whether we can actually believe what we see with our own eyes?

ACKERMAN: You know, I think the themes of the book, you know, address, as you mentioned, the ideas of the singularity - the ideas of technology, but also how technology affects not only individual consciousness but collective consciousness. And so the book opens with this assassination. But very quickly, we see competing and dueling narratives emerge as to who did it and also as to what potentially did it. And those dueling narratives really become the crux around which the United States hurls into this civil conflict that makes up the bulk of the book.

KELLY: Yeah. And the bulk of the book, we're following various plot twists as everyone is trying to figure out who wanted the president dead and why and, most critically, how, with one possibility being remote gene editing. Admiral, explain.

STAVRIDIS: All of our bodies are constantly regenerating themselves. The human body is really a fresh, changed set of cells. And if someone was able to remotely insert itself in that process, you could, very suddenly, very rapidly, change that body - that cellular regeneration. And in the case of "2054," the remote gene editing goes after the president's heart.

KELLY: I want to ask about one of your characters - a man named B.T. This is a scientist who is involved with some of the science that contributes to moving the action along in the book. And I empathized with him, in part, because he did see all of this as hopeful and further thought that humans will always have the edge in some way. Would you talk a little bit about his character and how he arrives at that view, Elliot?

ACKERMAN: I mean, I think B.T. is someone who views that the core of our humanity is our capacity for change. And so B.T. is optimistic, even as these forces of change, which seem to be, you know, pushing the United States up to the brink of civil war, making it so we can't, you know, speak to one another or hear one of those viewpoints. And that seemed to have led to the assassination of an American president. Even though there are all of these secondary consequences of the change, B.T. ultimately sees this as hopeful.

KELLY: Ah. I got to interview you both about your last effort, "2034," which was a military and cyber thriller. And I remember we talked about how one of the themes was the way to defeat technology - or if you're up against adversarial technology - is not with more technology. It's with no technology. It's going back to the basics. Does that apply to this new book? Does that apply to AI? Elliot, you first.

ACKERMAN: I think it does, insomuch as we need to be able to situate ourselves where we're at in our human story and to also understand that, you know, that we're not always just on this upward-sloping graph of progress - that sometimes chaos, destruction is part of our human progress and our human journey. And I think that, you know, in this story, we see the development of the singularity and artificial intelligence? You know, it's not a new story because we've often seen technologies be the fulcrum around which great power competition emerges - whether it was the development of the nuclear bomb and nuclear power in the 20th century or the industrialization that existed in the 19th century. And we're sitting here right now at the dawn of new types of technological change, and the obvious question is, you know, what are going to be the political ramifications of that in a year like 2054? But if we're looking to the answers, you know, we can look back to other periods of significant and profound change and see that kind of, in the old technology and how humanity dealt with it, are the answers to how humanity will deal and adapt to the new technologies.

KELLY: Admiral, what about you - defeating new technology with no technology?

STAVRIDIS: I think, in this case, you have to match your opponent's technology. I think it is - Elliot's exactly right that we can look to history for guideposts and evolve and adapt. But in this case, because these technologies are so profound, you can't simply stand outside them and kind of wring your hands and hope that everything is going to turn out for the best. And that's why, as Elliot said, there's a great power competition because both sides know they have to have this technology, this singularity.

KELLY: That prompts the last thing I want to ask you, which is - another theme from the last book, from "2034," was America as the author of its own destruction. And I have to say, I felt that less in this new book. Without giving away how it all lands with looming civil war and a dead president, it - this one feels, as I read it, more optimistic about the state of our democracy and our political institutions and whether they will hold. Was that intentional? Do you think that's true?

ACKERMAN: I think it is true. I think, you know, this is a book that, as much as it is about technology - and we've talked about that - it's also a book about America and how, I guess, the fundamental technology upon which our country was built are the institutions and how those institutions metabolize change. And so in "2054," what you see is that our institutions are able to do that.

And in addition to our institutions, it's also, I think, you know, the American people. We've shown our resilience during periods of great change. We've been up against the wall and survived before. So again, I don't want to spoil how the book ends, but I do think it is a hopeful book. And we wrote it with hopeful intentions, which is that by imagining the worst-case scenarios, you are able to avoid them.

KELLY: Admiral - last word.

STAVRIDIS: I'm Greek American, so I'm required to be optimistic at all times.

KELLY: (Laughter).

STAVRIDIS: And yes, this book is cautiously optimistic. I think Elliot puts it pretty well. A lot of people these days think that somehow America's best days are behind us. I don't think so - don't bet against us.

KELLY: Admiral Jim Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman. Their new novel, is set in and titled "2054." Thank you.

ACKERMAN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "SUPERSTARR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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